Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dissecting a Chocolate Pudding

Reading the transcript of a talk by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, it has some interesting statistics concerning the decline in violence throughout human history, but as Twain once said, there are "lies, damned lies, and there are statistics." It starts from the ridiculous assertion that
"The extraordinary 65-year stretch since the end of the Second World War has been called the "Long Peace", and has perhaps the most striking statistics of all, zero. There were zero wars between the United States and the Soviet Union (the two superpowers of the era), contrary to every expert prediction."
He conveniently ignores an awful lot of very bloody wars. Picking a few at random (and including WWII just for reference),
1939-45: World War II (55 million) [note: other sources put the toll at up to 100 million]
1946-49: Chinese civil war (1.2 million)
1946-54: France-Vietnam war (600,000)
1947: Partition of India and Pakistan (1 million)
1949-50: Mainland China vs Tibet (1,200,000)
1950-53: Korean war (3 million)
1958-61: Mao's "Great Leap Forward" (38 million)
1964-73: USA-Vietnam war (3 million)
1965: second India-Pakistan war over Kashmir
1966-69: Mao's "Cultural Revolution" (11 million)
1967-70: Nigeria-Biafra civil war (800,000)
1971: Pakistan-Bangladesh civil war (500,000)
1974-91: Ethiopian civil war (1,000,000)
1975-78: Menghitsu, Ethiopia (1.5 million)
1975-79: Khmer Rouge, Cambodia (1.7 million)
1975-2002: Angolan civil war (500,000)
1976-93: Mozambique's civil war (900,000)
1976-98: Indonesia-East Timor civil war (600,000)
1979-88: the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan (1.3 million)
1980-88: Iraq-Iran war (1 million)
1983-2002: Sudanese civil war (2 million)
1998-: Congo/Zaire's war - Rwanda and Uganda vs Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia (3.8 million)
I have to note that the source for this is so uniformly optimistic as to be ludicrous itself. One should double or triple many of those figures. It lists Stalin's purges, for instance, as 10 million dead, when better figures are at least 20 million, and some are over 30 million.

The way Pinker's thesis works is this: calculate violence on a per capita basis, and violence around the world has dramatically reduced over history; your chance of dying is less today.

Of course, on a non-per-capita basis, the number of deaths from violence has been going way up, and it isn't in the least clear to me whether he's including all the consequences of violence and statism, such as starvation, etc.  How he explains his decision goes like
The denominator here is the world population, not the population size of countries involved in each war. There are arguments for doing it either way. The problem is that you can make the numbers go all over the place depending on the choice of the denominator, whether you choose the country that initiated the war, the collateral damage in other countries, the neighboring countries, and so on. So in all cases I've plotted deaths as a proportion of world population.
So if you're going to make your numbers go all over the place, why not make them go all over toward your thesis?  That is, the epistemology of a self-licking ice cream cone.

As to why there's been "no wars" since WWII, he says,
"Specifically, the number of democracies has increased since the Second World War and again since the end of the Cold War, relative to the number of autocracies...."
I suppose if you consider the Soviet Union and Communist China "democracies".
"...There's been a steady increase in international trade since the end of the Second World War."
More on that shortly.
"...There's been a continuous increase in the number of intergovernmental organizations that countries have entered into. And especially since the end of the Cold War in 1990, there's been an increase in the number of international peace-keeping missions, and even more importantly, the number of international peace keepers that have kept themselves in between warring nations mostly in the developing world."
Again, more on that shortly.
"Nuclear weapons, paradoxically, are so militarily useless that they haven't really affected balance of power considerations. This is not to deny that deterrence has been important, just that the massive amount of destruction that countries like the U.S. and the USSR could inflict with conventional weaponry made each very nervous about the other even if neither side had had nuclear weapons. World War II in Europe didn't involve nuclear weapons, but was a kind of destruction that no one wanted to see again. The theory of the Nuclear Peace is quite popular, but I’m skeptical."
Well, I'm skeptical of a lot, too.  Then there is his statement that slavery has been reduced around the world:
"...just fifty years ago, slavery was still legal in Saudi Arabia... The last countries to abolish it were Saudi Arabia in 1962..."
Even our own State Department might dispute that.
"Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and to a much lesser extent, forced prostitution. Men and women from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and many other countries voluntarily travel to Saudi Arabia as domestic servants or other low-skilled laborers, but some subsequently face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude, including nonpayment of wages, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as the withholding of passports or confinement to the workplace. Recent reports of abuse include the driving of nails into a domestic worker’s body... 
...The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.
Again, this report significantly understates the slavery problem in Saudi Arabia; they still hold slave bazaars, albeit no longer for public display. But Pinker's argument is that the slavery is less of the old-fashioned "yes, massuh" flogging variety. I suppose, as long as you don't have nails driven through your palms.

This was all part of a pattern of sophistic argument and presentation that left in me that lingering feeling of E coli poisoning, so I simply had to dissect it. His thesis, to summarize, is that the cause of the historical reduction in violence is: empathy, literacy, the rise of the State, the decline in individualism, and, if you can believe it, the rise in international commerce.

I think the real sub-text to this may be advocacy of a one-world state and some other silly nonsense.  He talks of the rise of the "pacifying force of reason" -- which would be meaningful if he used that term properly -- but he defines it as
"...the cognitive faculties that allow us to engage in objective, detached analysis. ...People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others."
Ie, apart from any self-interest. Keep in mind this is from an alleged psychologist.  If you want to understand where he gets this viewpoint, he makes a confession:
"So what are the immediate causes of the Long Peace [after WWII], and what I call the new peace (that is, the Post-Cold War era)? They were anticipated by Immanuel Kant in his remarkable essay, "Perpetual Peace" from 1795, in which he suggested that democracy, trade and an international community were pacifying forces."
No major surprises there. For anyone who doesn't know what Kant stood for, I offer as exhibit A:  Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Communist China, and most of the deaths in that list up above.

The most curious incongruity in Pinker's thesis is the contention that international commerce (or what he calls the "theory of Gentle Commerce", from Tocqueville) has been a great pacifying force. This is somewhat conventional (a lot of people believe it) but keep in mind we're talking about a Harvard academic who admires Kant. I think the not-obvious but real sub-text here is the conventional Leftist line about the pacifying power of the welfare state, and I go back to my previous statement that he implicitly is advocating for the pacifying power of a one-world government free of individualistic concerns. He is not advocating for Capitalism:
"What were the immediate causes of the humanitarian revolution? A plausible first guess is affluence. One might surmise that as one's own life becomes more pleasant, one places a higher value on life in general. However, I don't think the timing works.
This would seem to contradict my statement that he is implicitly arguing for a welfare state, but I think the difference is what he believes are the causes of affluence. He rejects the Industrial Revolution (the rise of Capitalism) as a cause because the timing "doesn't work", mainly by simply redefining it as a 19th century phenomenon:
"Most economic historians say that the world saw virtually no increase in affluence until the time of the Industrial Revolution starting in the early decades of the 19th century. But most of the reforms that I've been talking about were concentrated in the 18th century, when income growth was pretty much flat."
Well, affluence increased from near-zero to something a lot more than near-zero, if you want to call that "flat", while mortality from disease and starvation declined precipitously and world population grew exponentially.

When he speaks of "commerce" as reducing violence among peoples he seems particularly confused. His definition of commerce is:
"a development of the institutions of money and finance, and of technologies of transportation and time keeping."
Whenever you see someone define a key concept in terms of non-essentials, you have to wonder what essentials they are trying to evade. What makes commerce possible? Possibly—freedom, ie, individual rights, and governments that protect individual rights. On those terms, only some kinds of governments can have commerce. But when you define it in terms of "transportation" and "time-keeping", even a totalitarian state can have "commerce" (so long as there is a capitalist to make the trucks and keep their clocks functioning).

He even says
"The result was to shift the incentive structure from zero-sum plunder to positive-sum trade."
Well, that sounds good, but here is how he interprets trade:
"We will hear more from both Leda and Martin that reciprocal altruism, such as gains in trade, can result in both sides being better off after an interaction."
Putting aside that he feels the need to let Leda and Martin take all the heat for such a ludicrous definition, he is trying to smuggle in the idea that trading is "reciprocal altruism", not self-interested profit. "Positive-sum trade" becomes "positive-sum altruism" for Pinker.

That has implications. My interpretation: his view of a proper government is one which enforces "reciprocal altruism" at the point of a gun, ie, Collectivism.

He says statistical studies show "that countries with open economies and greater international trade are less likely to engage in war, are less likely to host civil wars, and have genocides."

Again, the meaning of his terms is important. Like Kant, I think that, for Pinker, A is not A, reason is post-modern enlightenment ("empathy", "altruism", anti-individualism, etc), commerce is state-controlled, trade is altruistic, etc. The "timing doesn't work" for freedom to have reduced violence, but for him it does happen to correlate with the rise of Marxism and the "Long Peace" after WWII, when (he repeats himself) nuclear weapons were never used.

Never mind that they weren't used because the Soviet Union didn't dare to use them because they faced annihilation by the United States.

He makes other points that sound good superficially, but are really insidious in how they attempt to undermine genuine ideas. He speaks of the civilizing influences of book production, literacy and academic schooling, which gives rise to reason and "the expanding circle of empathy", and he lumps this under the term "cosmopolitanism".
"...literacy gives rise to cosmopolitanism. It is plausible that the reading of history, journalism, and fiction puts people into the habit of inhabiting other peoples' minds, which could increase empathy and therefore make cruelty less appealing."
Curious choice, that. The correct definition of "cosmopolitan" is "worldly". As he argues, the violence declined with the rise of the State, and with fewer warring groups. As he says,
"In the transition from Middle Ages to modernity there was a consolidation of centralized states and kingdoms throughout Europe."
The point is actually more subtly woven into his thesis. He says
"What is the rate of death by violence in people who have recently lived outside of state control, namely hunter-gatherers, hunter-horticulturalists, and other tribal groups?"
"There's the drive toward dominance, both the competition among individuals to be alpha male, and the competition among groups for ethnic, racial, national or religious supremacy or pre-eminence."
He also speaks of the reduction of violence from "fewer interstate wars".  He discusses this somewhat at length, while rationalizing the rise in civil wars as due to the "superpowers," but the implication is clear: fewer groups, less violence; fewer governments, less violence.  To complete the syllogism, one government, no violence.

He also argues that the proliferation of "intergovernmental organizations" was a key factor. In my opinion, again, code for institutions like the U.N. and "one-world government".

What ideology advocates for centralized, one-world government today?

Let's move on.

Pinker argues there are five basic causes of violence:
  1. "Desire for exploitation... seeking something that you want where a living thing happens to be in the way; examples include rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals..."
  2. "Dominance... competition among individuals... competition among groups..."
  3. "Revenge... vendettas, rough justice, and cruel punishments..."
  4. "Ideology... which might be the biggest contributor of all (such as in militant religions, nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and communism)..."
That's right, he said there were five, but only listed  four. I might add, "irrationality".

Note a common thread in these: "seeking something that you want", "competition among individuals", "cruel punishments", "ideology". I think the common denominator here is "cruel individuals pursuing their self-interest and exhibiting independent judgment, moral certitude and no ideology."

I know, I know. What a reach. But consider it in the context of everything else. For instance, he says
"...people tend to exaggerate their adversary's malevolence and exaggerate their own innocence. Self-serving biases can stoke cycles of revenge when you have two sides, each of them intoxicated with their own sense of rectitude and moral infallibility."
Then he lists the four factors which inhibit violence: "self-control", "empathy", "moral sense", and "the escalator of reason".

Ah, yes. It's just like going to the shopping mall as a child: we commit violence because of our fear of taking the first step on the moving stairs of reason.
"Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules."
Fairness to whom? According to what universal rules? No answer.

What is "reason" to Pinker? It is people rising
"...above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests."
So you see he takes his escalator analogy seriously. How are they rising? Literacy that makes them more "cosmopolitan" and prepared to engage in the "gentle commerce" of "reciprocal altruism".
"Why should literacy matter? A number of the causes are summed up by the term "Enlightenment." For one thing, knowledge replaced superstition and ignorance: beliefs such as that Jews poisoned wells, heretics go to hell, witches cause crop failures, children are possessed, and Africans are brutish. As Voltaire said, 'Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'"
So literacy = reading Voltaire and knowing that Africans aren't brutish.
"Also, literacy gives rise to cosmopolitanism. It is plausible that the reading of history, journalism, and fiction puts people into the habit of inhabiting other peoples' minds, which could increase empathy and therefore make cruelty less appealing. This is a point I'll return to later in the talk."
Back to the four factors. What is "self-control" to Pinker? Not doing violence. What is "empathy"? Following your emotions. What is "moral sense"? Altruism. He implies we're not supposed to exhibit independent judgment or have an ideology, but exhorts us to practice reason...

Hmmmm. In addition to altruism, it sounds a lot like some kind of rationalization for multiculturalism and relativism — sacrifice for other cultures — with a dash of Rodney King to end the violence ("Can't we all just get along?").

Besides the "pacifying forces" of "democracy, trade and an international community", Pinker goes on to say
"Hobbes got it right: a Leviathan, namely a state and justice system with a monopoly on legitimate use of violence, can reduce aggregate violence by eliminating the incentives for exploitative attack; by reducing the need for deterrence and vengeance (because Leviathan is going to deter your enemies so you don't have to), and by circumventing self-serving biases. One of the major discoveries of social and evolutionary psychology in the past several decades is that people tend to exaggerate their adversary's malevolence and exaggerate their own innocence. Self-serving biases can stoke cycles of revenge when you have two sides, each of them intoxicated with their own sense of rectitude and moral infallibility."
I don't know about that "Leviathan" part (Pinker capitalized the "L", not me), but sure, we need government. What kind? He doesn't say. One based on individual rights, or one based on totalitarianism? No direct answer, but his thesis is all about the dramatic reduction in violence around the world because of the emergence of big government--during a massive rise in Marxist and fascist totalitarian governments throughout the 20th century. And the core tenet of his thesis is that if we measure violence on a per capita basis, everyone (including people under totalitarian governments!) is now better off than their historical predecessors.


He also talks of the pacifying force of the "Rights Revolution", which he defines as
"...the reduction of systemic violence at smaller scales against vulnerable populations such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals."
He also includes the demise of hunting and the rise in vegetarianism among the potent forces for reducing violance, and argues it comes about from the "Expanding Circle of empathy". (Again, it's not clear why he uses a capital "E"; is the "expanding" part more important than the empathy?)

There is also a bizarre non-sequitur woven into his reasoning as a tumorous, yet benign sub-text. It's repeated so often and is so ineffective that one has to wonder if the Expanding circle of empathy has emptied his brain cavity. To paraphrase, it goes like this: "Worldwide violence has been reduced to historic lows because we no longer have witch hunts, dueling, blood sports, debtors prisons, persecution of gays and animal cruelty in films."

To counter this sort of "reasoning", Pinker does make a pretense of advocating rational ideas,
"In addition, the decline of violence has implications for our assessment of modernity: the centuries-long erosion of family, tribe, tradition and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science."
but it's a little like going to a symphony where they intersperse atonal nonsense within a program of melodic pieces from Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff—except the melodic pieces have been moved to an anharmonic musical scale.

It's the method of a con man, and a not very bright con man, at that—a common poseur.

The appropriately named Pinker is little more than another irredeemably post-modern intellectual wanna-bee, steeped in Kantianism, ensconced in ivy-league academia, and incapable of even seeing the general commerce for the trees. If I had to sum him up, I'd say he is anti-capitalist, anti-individualist, anti-individual rights, pro-one-world government, pro-collectivist, and probably some flavor of soft communist, but god knows, it doesn't really matter when your brain has the consistency of pudding.